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Vegan Protein Powder

Written by Ben Carlisle

Last updated on: Sep 17, 2022

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Vegan protein powder is a great way to get additional protein into your diet. This is especially true if you are following a plant based diet or have dietary restrictions such as the need for dairy free products. Studies have shown plant based proteins can be just as effective as whey protein when it comes to increasing muscle mass, gaining strength and improving body composition (12).

What Are Vegan Protein Powders?

Vegan protein powders are supplements which are derived from one or more plant based sources. If more than one source is used it is known as a blend. The main reason blends are used is to ensure the protein powders contains an adequate amount of all nine essential amino acids.

Although plants are not protein packed in the same way as meats, dairy and fish, food processors can be used to isolate the proteins from plants. Once this protein is isolated it can be made into protein-rich powders. Just like whey powders, vegan protein powders can be mixed in a variety of ways, including with: water, dairy free milk, smoothies and porridge.

What Are The Different Types Of Vegan Protein Powder?

Pea Protein

Pea protein is consider by many to be one of the best vegan protein powders. It is derived from yellow split peas (not the more well-known sweet green peas). 50g of a typical pea isolate contains 38g of protein per serving and 183 calories per serving with no saturated fats, salts or sugars. The amino acid profile of pea protein is rich in the following amino acids: leucine, lysine and phenylalanine (3). It also has good levels of the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), which play a key role in promoting muscle protein synthesis.

The only essential amino acid which pea protein is low in is methionine. This is not a problem if you ensure you add this essential amino acid elsewhere in your diet. Research has found pea isolate to be just as effective as whey when it comes to increasing muscle thickness (1). And for pea isolate to be similar to whey when it comes to promoting strength, performance, body composition, and muscular adaptations (30). Pea isolate (including organic pea protein powder) are very popular amongst individuals wanting a plant based powder to pursuing fitness and athletic goals.

Soy Protein

Soy is a complete protein (4). This high content of BCAA’s helps support the growth of muscle and the development of strength.50 grams of a typical soy isolate podwer will typically contain approximately 39 grams of protein per serving and 170 calories.

In the past soy protein powder was considered one of the best vegan protein powders. However, the popularity of soy protein has decreased in recent times. This is especially true in the United States of America where most soy is genetically modified (GM). Soy protein supplements which are non-GM have remained more popular.

Additionally, allergies to soy and concerns regarding adverse effects on health have contributed to the decline in the popularity of soy based protein.

However, recent research has found soy protein isolate contains anti-cancer properties and mentions previous concerns related to soy protein were based on animal study results (5).

Hemp Protein

Hemp protein powder is formulated from the seeds produced by the cannabis plant. The type of cannabis plant used is bred with substantially reduced levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (6). These low levels of THC mean you cannot get high from hemp protein powder like you would if you smoke marijuana.

50 grams of this protein powder will typically provide approximately 21 grams of protein per serving and 193 calories. It does not contain a high amount of the essential amino acid lysine. For this reason, hemp is not a complete protein. However, this lysine deficit can be remedeid by supplementing your hemp protein intake with foods such as quinoa, lentis and beans.

A benefit of hemp is it contains a high level of omega-3 through acid α-linolenic acid (ALA). And a high-level omega-6 through acid linoleic acid (LA). These essential fatty acids aid cardiovascular health. And can protect the heart, assist the maintenance of lean body mass and brain function. Hemp is also an excellent source of magnesium, zinc, iron and fibre (7).

Plant Based Blends

Several vegan protein supplements are sold as plant based blends. The reason for this is to get all the essential amino acids into one protein supplement. An example of a plant based blend which achieves this would-be pea protein with rice protein. As a stand-alone product rice protein is low in lysine and the pea protein is low in methionine but combined this blend would provide good levels of all the essential acids considered to be essential.

Quinoa is often used to complement plant proteins to create a plant based blend. It is gluten free, rich in protein, lipids, fibres, vitamins and minerals. Quinoa has an excellent amino acid profile. This makes it an ideal complement to good vegan protein source which may lack an essential amino acid (8).

There is a trend of using sprouted of fermented plant proteins in plant based blends. There is evidence some fermented foods and beverages have health benefits due to presence of functional microorganisms (9). Additional research has found some evidence fermented plant proteins improve mineral bio accessibility (10).

Chia Protein

Chia protein is derived from chia seeds. Chia seeds come from one of two plants Salvia hispanica or Salvia columbariae. These plants can be found in Central and Southern Mexico, and South Western United States and Mexico, respectively. In recent times, it has become popular to integrate Chia seeds into a variety of diets. They can be added in several ways including in, porridges, smoothies and in the form of protein powder.

A 50-gram serving of chia protein powder will typically contain approximately 17 grams of protein and 89 calories. The exact nutritional profile will vary between different brands of protein powder. Chia is not a complete protein as it contains a low amount of the essential amino acid lysine (11). Powdered chia protein has shown evidence it more than doubles the protein digestibility when compared to chia seeds. The benefits of this enhanced digestibility are an increase in the absorption of amino acids (12).

Chia protein boosts a very high nutritional content in a low number of calories, is high in fibre and is packed full of anti-oxidants. There is even evidence chia may assist with weight loss. With such an impressive nutritional profile it is not surprising chia is becoming an increasingly popular plant based protein (13).

Brown Rice Protein

Brown rice protein powder is an affordable plant based protein powder which is widely available. The only essential amino acid it lacks is lysine (14). 50 grams of this plant based protein powder will typically contain approximately 39 grams of protein per serving and 191 calories. This nutritional information will vary between different brands of protein powder. One study has found brown rice protein to be comparable to protein powders based on whey with regards to body composition and exercise performance (15).

With brown rice protein powder, it is important to ensure the manufacturer checks for arsenic levels. The reason for this is rice products have the possibility of being contaminated with the heavy metal arsenic (16).

Pumpkin Seed Protein

As the name suggests this protein powder is derived from the seeds of pumpkins. During the process of transforming pumpkin seeds into powder most of the fat from the seeds is removed. The result is a powder with the relatively high protein content found in pumpkin seeds but a reduced calorie count.

This plant based protein source is extremely nutritious with a high amount of magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and iron (17). However, it is not a complete protein as it is low on the essential amino acids: threonine and lysine. 50-grams of this protein powder typically contains approximately 32 grams of protein per serving and 184 calories. The exact nutritional information of pumpkin seed powder will vary between products. Research also suggests pumpkin seed may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects (17, 18).

Sunflower Seed Protein

Sunflower seed based protein is a vegan protein which is growing in popularity. This protein is formed by isolating protein from sunflower seeds. Sometimes sunflower seed protein is used in a blend with the plant based protein quinoa. This gives a vegan protein blend with a complete amino acid profile. The reason for this is alone sunflower seed is not a complete protein due to being low in lysine (19).

Sacha Inchi Protein

Sacha inchi protein is isolated from a seed which is native to the Peruvian amazon. It can be found in South America and the Caribbean. Sacha inchi has been used for hundreds of years, but has only become popular in recent times. It was traditionally used by the indigenous people of Peru, leading to it often referred to as “Inca Nut” and “Mountain Peanut”. It is star-shaped in appearance and contains a great nutritional profile. This includes high protein, fibre and healthy fats. Sacha inchi also contains antioxidants and other beneficial micronutrients (20).

A 50 gram serving of sacha inchi protein powder provides approximately 30 grams of protein and 214 calories. The nutritional information will vary between product. It has a good amino acid profile.  However it has a low lysine count which means it cannot be considered complete protein. Therefore it should be supplemented with a food source such as quinoa to make up for the lack of the amino acid lysine. One study has found sacha inchi protein powder to be comparable to the same amount of soy protein powder when it comes to supporting protein synthesis via nitrogen balance (21).

What Are The Benefits Of Taking A Vegan Protein Powder

A Way To Increase Protein Intake If You Dietary Restrictions Or Want To Avoid Animal Produce

One benefit of taking a vegan protein powder is if you have dietary restrictions or want to avoid animal produce. You can supplement your diet to hit your daily protein intake goals whilst not having to resort to whey. Research has shown pea protein promotes similar strength, performance, body composition, and muscular adaptations to whey. This means any dietary restrictions you have such as requiring gluten-free food will not penalise your potential to reach your goals (22).

To Assist With Weight Loss And The Improvement Of Your Body Composition

Replacing animal protein sources (this include whey) with plant based protein has been shown to decrease fat mass. This makes vegan protein powders particularly interesting for anyone seeking to lose weight or improve their body composition (23).

Like any protein source, vegan protein shakes will increase satiety. This means by taking a vegan protein shake you will fill fuller (24). This obviously assists anyone who is on a diet as it reduces the probability of binge eating. This is especially true if your objective is weight loss as maintaining a calorie deficit is vital to your success. Further to this, research has shown increased protein intake has resulted in a reduction of calorie intake throughout the day (25).

A Range Of Health Benefits Are Associated With Vegan Food Sources

Using vegan protein powders as opposed to an animal based one's can be done to enjoy the health benefits associated with a vegan diet. This includes a reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer (26). It has also been found those following a vegan diet typically benefit from lower LDL cholesterol and blood pressure (27).

Does Vegan Protein Powder Help Build Muscle And Strength In The Same Way As Whey?

Vegan protein powders are capable of producing comparable results to whey when it comes to developing strength and muscle (22). A study found the muscle thickness development between two groups, one using whey protein shakes and the other using vegan protein shakes, to have comparable results. This means if your goal is to build either muscle or strength using a vegan shake will not reduce your chances of success (28).

One thing to be conscious of, if your goal is muscle growth and you are intending to use a vegan protein shake is to know if your supplement has a complete essential amino acid profile. For example, pea protein isolate is low in methionine, so for best results, you would need to supplement methionine elsewhere in your diet. Methionine acts as a growth signal for cells (29).

Overall, choosing a vegan protein shake instead of a whey one, will not making any significant difference in the results you get when it comes to building muscle or strength. The key thing is to ensure your diet has enough protein and you are not missing out on any essential amino acid.

Vegan Protein Powder Summary

Vegan protein powders are a great way to top up your daily protein intake from a plant based source. They provide both protein and amino acids. This assists your body in the repair and development of muscle. The supplementary protein also increases satiety which can be beneficial for weight loss, assisting the maintenance of a calorie deficit.

Vegan protein comes from a variety of different plant based sources. Each of these sources will have their own nutritional profile and will contain a different level of protein per serving. For instance, vegan supplements which are not soy or quinoa based are normally low in at least one essential amino acid (this is not an issue if you factor this into your daily diet). Usually you will find vegan protein supplements are in the form of a blend combining two or more vegan proteins to ensure they contain acceptable levels of each essential amino acid.

This makes checking the labelling of vegan protein supplements vital. This is to ensure you are getting the nutritional benefit you require for your goals. Overall many vegan protein powders are great supplements which compare favourably with whey powders. For most atheltic and fitness goals yellow pea protein powder is the best option.


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